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Magnus Ryan

magnus ryanName
Dr. Magnus Ryan


What is your field of history?
History of political ideas in the medieval period;
Law and politics in medieval Europe.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
As a continuation of interests sparked but not satisfied by several inspirational teachers when I was an undergraduate here in Cambridge

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
Unpublished medieval manuscripts (documents) containing what teachers of Roman law and canon law taught at the universities, their professional consultations giving advice on daily problems of government and politics at the highest level, such as the papal court, royal courts, the councils of city-states. Its strengths as a body of source material are, first, topicality: these were the burning problems of the day, such as the implications of the expulsion of the Jews, public debt, relations between Christian rulers and their non-Christian subjects, revolt, economic sanctions, the tightening up of ecclesiastical discipline – the list is endless. The principal problem is that these are incomplete narratives: one has to reconstruct the course of events, and paint in the entire background, before one can make sense of what governments were being told to do and not do.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
The main forces are cultural: the growth of a professional culture of legal practice and education from the twelfth century onwards. This is the broad, background phenomenon stretching over several centuries, and which is itself the subject of a medium-sized industry of scholarly research in modern law and history faculties. The precise individuals and protagonists include the most famous lawyers in an age when lawyers were internationally famous and enthusiastically head-hunted by competing princes, along with the litigants themselves: anonymous private citizens in dispute over who got what after a divorce or death, popes, emperors and kings.

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
More attention is now paid to the technical aspects of the evidence: how has it reached us, how reliable are the manuscripts in which it is preserved? This was always at the heart of the problem, but modern methods of data retrieval and analysis have made far more ambitious projects possible. Beyond that, we all just keep arguing with each other – so no change there.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
Local studies need to be conducted; only then will we know what the variations were in European legal practice from one area to another. This goes right to the top: many scholars believe, for example, that the whole of medieval Europe shared in a common legal culture in the later middle ages. The questions at issue are therefore big questions.

What characterises good history?
The best historical writing can be and often is wrong without ceasing to be useful; some historians’ mistakes are worth more than the rectitude of others. Clarity of expression and the association of the reader by the author in the process of analysis and argument are crucially important in this respect.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
I discovered the importance of the history of ideas and ideologies, which was impossible to study at school but which forms a key element in the teaching of history in Cambridge.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
Email me: